More Upstander Stories

Through a series of interviews conducted by Fidel Bafilemba, Frontline Upstanders tell their life stories. All of them are risking their lives to defend human rights, press for peace, resist dictatorship, provide education, and prepare a better future for their fellow Congolese.

Immaculée Birhaheka

Interviewed By Fidel Bafilemba

My name is Immaculée Birhaheka. I was born in South Kivu in 1960. I attended elementary and high school in my village, including attending church services. My childhood was beautiful, living next to my uncles, aunts and grandparents.

I got a lot of affection during my childhood. My elders were elders and parents were parents even if they were not direct family members, and we had grown up in peace that way.  I did my college education in Bukavu and benefited a lot from collaboration with my colleagues and professors.

Early on, I had observed that even though women were growing up, they remained minors in the way they were treated. I had observed that once a woman was married, she became very submissive. I found that abnormal. I also observed that the potential of women remained unexploited. I had discovered that I myself had potential that society was not recognizing.

What made me want to work alongside other women was a certain incident. When I was in grade 2 of college, we got sent for training, and the nutritionist physician who was there had placed four of us to assist in a study he was doing. The study aimed to explain the impact of women’s hard labor on their personal development and that of their communities. The study focused mostly on rural women, which turned out to be the subject of my college studies. I had grown up in a rural area, so I knew very well my case study.

Once we had completed our work, we were very inspired and made a lot of noise as students, saying that things must change and women should not be marginalized. At the same time, I read a UNICEF handbook about West African women.  The similarity between women in West Africa and women in Central Africa was very clear. I wrote my thesis on women’s hard labor and its impact on women’s development and on their children and communities. However, the academic authorities did not understand my findings, and therefore tried to fail me on the finals. They didn’t succeed, though, because I was very successful in other subjects.

In the end, the academic authorities concluded that I hadn’t done a scientific study simply because I had worked on women’s cases, despite all of the statistics I had provided. I had shown that a woman tilling the land after a five kilometer walk wouldn’t have the same performance as one working next to her home. Also, a woman who leaves for tilling the land five kilometers away sees her children having a much higher risk of kwashiorkor [a severe form of malnutrition], because she is not there to attend to the children properly. We had also found that Congolese society is very patriarchal, and that colonial heritage had conditioned society to believe that only women must do all of the domestic work, while men should work in plantations or in offices. And that culture has been sustained until now.

After I finished college, some colleagues called to let me know that there was a local NGO that just opened, and it was looking for women to work there because the donor had requested that gender issues be taken into account. I was appointed to the women’s department, but soon enough I fell into conflict with the men who worked in there. This was a local NGO created by men, and women were recruited only because of a donor’s requirement.  I explained to the other women that we wouldn’t make progress this way.   I explained to the men that we would not make progress if only the men represent the NGO. Then they sent me on a disciplinary transfer very far away on a water supply project.

I was so happy about this because such a project falls under rural development, exactly the subject I focused on in college. I was very comfortable! My job consisted of helping women take ownership of the water supply project. Because of women’s hygiene and their social condition, water is vital for women. Men just expect women to help them with water. That water supply system alleviated the women’s burden that prevents them from going to school or minding other businesses. Women cannot progress until they’re freed up from such burdens. Taking care of the faucet and getting access to clean water is therefore women’s most important goal. Provision of clean water became my main objective.

After finishing that project, I did another similar one and then joined another organization.  Then war broke out in March 1993 in Masisi. All of a sudden we heard a gunshot fired in our ears. I thought we were going to die there. I eventually fled from the rural areas back to Goma.

After working for other organizations, I convened some of my colleagues so that we could create our own NGO that would be dedicated specifically to women’s issues, a local NGO where women would express freely and give their opinion. As a result, we created the organization PAIF [Promotion and Support of Women’s Initiatives]. Water supply systems were our first projects, because there were girls who couldn’t go to school because they had to fetch water first early in the morning. We also wanted to create a platform that gives women the opportunity to express their opinions. Women had done agriculture, small businesses, etc., but as long as their opinions are not expressed or heard, they won’t be able to control the fruits of what they produce. Most social conflicts stem from women’s status and lack of rights. We decided to document women’s rights violations and train the community on women’s rights, including men, because the authorities didn’t understand women’s rights. We knew that there will never be a world of women alone and another world of men alone. We convened all the stakeholders together so that they understood that the inclusion of women is a development strategy. No development is possible without women’s inclusion.

But we also thought that women can’t become vocal as long as they’re still miserable and uneducated, because you can only talk when you know what you’re talking about. We therefore prioritized women’s economic capacity building while informing women about women’s rights enshrined in international and national law. We then trained the women as well as those in charge of enforcing the legal provisions, including government officials and judicial authorities.

We have tried to revolutionize people’s thinking. Today women doctors’ associations and women lawyers’ associations are no longer make-believe. We have worked so hard for that to take place while we were being called all kinds of names and others saying that we were fools. Local radio stations were our main outreach tool. We were hosted every week to raise women’s awareness, no matter what names people called us. We just stuck to our strategy of bringing together women and the authorities. In my opinion, we have revolutionized things. Today, you can count as many women’s groups as men’s fighting for women’s cause. I believe that if there were no war, Congo would have gone further in the struggle for women’s rights.

We were among the very first people to report women’s rape in Congo in 1999. We had brought rape survivors from the villages and found them sanctuary in the churches in Goma.  We contributed information to Human Rights Watch reports. We have testified about women’s rape. However, despite so many reports on rape and efforts by numerous organizations, the sexual violence crisis has remained very serious. Even teachers continue raping their students who are children. It’s a big scandal! Therefore, in 2014 we launched an anti-rape campaign in schools, and the campaign has been replicated by Heal Africa, which is good in terms of amplifying the voices on this issue.

Women are rising to decision-making positions today. We have women ministers today, and girls are graduating from the university in Goma and elsewhere in the country. That’s very good! It’s really a success. There are even women professors who are no longer discriminated against as they were before. Today, you can feel that women are being respected for what they’re able to do. The general feeling before was that every woman who worked in an NGO was dependent on her male colleagues, even if the latter were not as qualified as the woman. I said no to that by refusing an under-qualified man to be my boss simply because he’s a man.  I had experienced that the general feeling was that all men were bosses of all women, and I said, “Who told you that?”  Women were sent to the kitchen during strategic meetings. I always countered that if we are to go to the kitchen, we’ll all go, including the men. I’d tell them that I did not go to college to do kitchen work, because college taught me that men and women are equal.

I dream of the end of the war and good governance in Congo.  I always dream of good governance so that we can all make a smooth landing as a Congolese nation. We human rights groups are working in extremely difficult conditions. I didn’t tell you of my arrests. I have been arrested and detained at “Chien Méchant” [French for “Vicious Dog,” an infamous detention cell run by the Congolese Intelligence Service in Goma] and seriously harassed, but that’s meaningless because we believe in what we do. Peace, the rule of law and good governance are all that Congo is lacking, so that is my biggest dream. Congolese are a very civilized people; they learn fast and are an easy people to work with. So, we need good governance and accountable authorities, not authorities who pit people against each other through ethnic tensions. Congolese are an extraordinary people. The simple evidence for that is the fact that we’re making a living despite the impossible conditions we’ve been forced into for over two decades now.

Congo is a strategic country in the heart of Africa, but we risk losing that position if we’re not careful and stop destroying each other by fueling war. I dream of a peaceful Congo with no war where a Congolese person is going out to dance and drink like in former times because dancing and drinking are part of life.